Laura Marling’s Once I Was An Eagle is like Damien Rice’s O stripped to its most basic elements with a touch of vocal illustriousness. Eagle is a warm tribute to the shimmering guitar folk of an imagined American west as well as to the modern acoustic music that has its roots in English folk balladry; a gracious album that forces introspection upon every moment you spend even passively listening to it. That Eagle‘s songs are not immediately distinguishable, and work with very little by way of ear-catching hooks – other than Marling’s occasional bursts of vocal ingenuity – is offset almost perfectly by the album’s self-assured presentation. It isn’t until the final track, “Saved These Words” that we truly feel we have an idea of what Marling has been holding onto and building up to, but at least the song’s euphoric folk explosions feel earned; their celebratory migration upwards like the reward for an album that requires some endurance.
Marling’s voice is rich and stable, but somewhat unvarying. This is not to say that she is a typical singer: for one thing, her voice would give her the sound of about 600 years of wisdom behind even the most banal of lyrical invectives. The capabilities of her range are not obvious, and her style hardly showy; in fact the heft of her voice is often left to trickle around in a sort of lulling murk – perhaps deliberately, as it makes the moments of heightened melodic excitement all the more gripping. On “You Know” the singer sounds almost Fiona Apple-esque in her acid-tongued indictments of the hippie culture her songwriting sometimes seems hell bent on cloying to. The track transitions seamlessly through “Breathe” and into the happily Led Zeppelin-sounding strum-line of “Master Hunter.” Once I Was An Eagle flows like one single, graceful movement of music: a piece of well-versed acoustic instrospection, scraped up endearingly with battle-ready percussion – who needs to buy some keys from a piano dealer when the melody is this solid?
“Undine” blends some country-fried guitar sensibilities with Marling’s sophisticated raconteuring, and for someone for whom it would otherwise seem pretentious or douchey to be composing in such a style (think of all the cringeworthy “country songs” your classmates performed at college open-mics), Marling smartly sidles her deliberately pastoral guitar work up to the storied melodic context. The song is a crackling bright invocation of the kind of music you might associate with a spaghetti western; something brimming with Americana, but that also feels like it would be at home amongst the villas and red wine of southern Europe or even northern Africa. With the exception of the album’s “Interlude” Once I Was An Eagle rarely strays from its simple acoustic setups of songs that can sometimes feel more like Laura Marling performance showcases than they do like legitimately interesting guitar compositions.
In title and in form, Once I Was An Eagle is reminiscent of some of Bill Callahan’s post-Smog work, wherein the main focus of the songs is the dry delivery of very blunt lyrics and the music this delivery is set to almost feels incidental. Such a comparison to Callahan’s work is most apparent on “When Were You Happy? (And How Long Has That Been)” which evokes Callahan’s laid-back bitterness perfectly. However, Eagle falls somewhat short of capturing the anti-folk iron of something like Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle, which turns its back on pop vocalisms in a more utter and less ambiguous fashion. The best moments on Once I Was An Eagle are still when Marling drops all pretense of anti-folk hyper-sincerity and lets her voice soar, like on “Love Be Brave.” The maturity in Marling’s voice feels sincere and earned, and yet it is obvious that the joy of experimenting with her voice has not been knocked out of Marling yet.